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Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

British Airways strike: Do we still need flag carriers?

Concorde with union flag

As strike action looms at British Airways, many are outraged at the prospect of disruption, but for others the issue is about an airline that became an extension of British national identity, says John Strickland.

Had you gazed out across the apron of an international airport 30 years ago, the sight of the arrayed tailfins would have looked not unlike a United Nations flag display.

An airline's colours were often simply those of its home country's flag.

Green, white and red for the Italian carrier Alitalia, a square white cross on a red background that denoted Swissair, the maple leaf of Air Canada and, of course, the red, white and blue designed to induce a pang of patriotism in any far-flung British traveller - the colours of British Airways.

George Harrisson with BOAC bag and BEA tailfins
British Airways was formed in 1974
The new government-owned airline was a merger of BOAC and BEA
The name was a nod to British Airways Ltd, which had been formed in 1935

It's no coincidence that the biggest airlines are known as flag carriers.

But the current troubles faced by British Airways, which is set to be hit by seven days of strikes by cabin crews, serve as a reminder that while the term flag carrier is still often bandied around its status is in the balance.

Do flag carriers still have a place in the air-travelling public's imagination?

Flag carriers were a product of the immediate post-war world when governments around the globe saw the emergence of air travel as a means to "wave the flag" for their respective countries.

Airlines, which were typically owned by their governments, were not so much businesses as prized trophies - each a self-conscious statement that their country had a place on the global stage.

In this heyday of "romantic" air travel, the UK, which had form as a country punching above its small island weight, actually had two flag carriers: BEA (British European Airways) in Europe and BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) on long-haul flights. Both were state-owned.

Similar companies performed the role in other parts of the world, with examples including Air France and Lufthansa in Europe and Pan Am and TWA in the USA (the latter two actually being privately owned).

Fly the Flag

Britain's airborne ambitions were further enhanced when, in 1974, its two big airlines joined forces to form one giant flag carrier, British Airways, a name that had originally been registered in 1935.

British Airways tailfin
Does this appeal on a patriotic level?

The livery began to feature a stylised union jack and for those inured to subtlety, its advertising campaigns urged us to "Fly the Flag".

But as government ownership gave way to privatisation in 1987, so British Airways' emphasis evolved from flag carrier to profit turner.

As the management era of Lord King and Sir Colin Marshall began, the objectives of greater efficiency, customer service and the promotion of brand values came to the fore.

That's not to say that national identity and "Britishness" didn't continue to play a part. But as other European governments began to look enviously at BA's growing profitability, the airline industry started to shift. Deregulation, liberalisation, greater competition and consumer choice were becoming the watchwords.

In a profit-driven world, the sentiment induced by flag carriers is no rival for the hard bitten, price-slashing tactics of low-cost airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair.

Yet letting go of a piece of national heritage is hard and still, today, many airlines are treated as flag carrier first, business concern second.

The "budgets" have turned the idea of flag carriers' status and national identity on its head.

Status trappings

While Ryanair and Easyjet both started operations in the UK market, today they are pan-European businesses that have successfully applied their formula across cultural and national boundaries without resistance to their lack of patriotic identity.

Alitalia has been saved by political will, but the point is well made when we reflect that the biggest airline in Italy is now... Ryanair

The low-cost airline for which I worked, Buzz (British-based, Dutch-owned, sold to Ryanair), flew French customers between French cities such as Bordeaux and Grenoble while customers happily purchased and ate our British-baked croissants.

While many still see British Airways as the UK's flag carrier in the skies, it has shed many of the trappings of that status. Indeed, its ill-fated multicultural tailfins were a deliberate attempt to break away from the ball-and-chain of British identity in a globalised world.

Margaret Thatcher's famous dismissal of the new livery, with a strategically placed handkerchief, coupled with customer backlash, suggests even the most free market-orientated of thinkers cannot shed the sentimental attachment to national identity.

It's perhaps ironic that the airline business as a truly global industry attracts such powerful feelings of patriotism and political pride.

Warm feeling

However as airlines battle their worst financial crisis ever and as many have fallen by the wayside or been bought by competitors, consolidation is the ongoing trend with a widespread recognition in the industry that financially it simply is not sustainable for every country to maintain its own flag carrier.

Not exactly a livery in the spirit of flag carrying

The experience of Alitalia is a case in point. The company, wracked by losses and industrial strife on an altogether grander scale than those affecting BA, would ordinarily have died a natural death. However it has been saved by political will, albeit in a reduced form, but the point is well made when we reflect that the biggest airline in Italy is now... Ryanair.

There is no doubt that there is an intangible warm feeling for many customers in boarding an aircraft representing elements of their own national culture and possibly with the national flag on the tail.

British Airways has managed to successfully capitalise on these feelings and to do so profitably until the global financial problems of the last two years. However there is no place for sentiment, the ultra-lean and non-nationalistically aligned low cost carriers have brought a new reality to the marketplace. They have shown that a multiplicity of customers is happy to use them.

There isn't room for all the flag carriers that still exist and those that survive will have to find the right blend of empathetic imagery combined with a hardnosed focus on efficiency and profitability.

John Strickland is an aviation analyst.

Below is a selection of your comments

My family and I flew BA once on a trip from Seattle to Rome. We still talk about the flight as much as we do the vacation. Flying British Airways is the only flight I've been in in thirty years where you felt special and were treated that way by the crew.
Marshall Pinkston, Boise, Idaho -- USA

Having been flying back and forth to Europe several times a year for many years, I have experienced several European airlines, BA being the latest. The multinational cabin crew, while attentive is still multinational (mostly Brazilian, probably cheaper). Regret to say that BA has lost the kind of "British" service one had come to expect. Air France goes out of their way to make sure their customers feel they are in France at 30,000ft as do Iberia and Lufthansa in varying degrees. In any event, BA's fares are currently not competitive in the face of their rivals on the same routes. A great shame.
Charles Jordan, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Yes... It may be hard to believe, but from my perspective (an American living and working in the UK), there is still great value, both for the airline and the nation, in being recognized as a 'flag carrier'. Why? It's an issue of brand - and, in business, there is NOTHING more important. Corporations spend billions creating, maintaining, and defending their brands - it truly is critical to their success. For a discount airline - an EasyJet or RyanAir - the brand is "cheapest available", and little more... However, the brand of a flag carrier represents a "safe choice" for passengers, with an expectation of safety and quality service, and some element of prestige. And because a disruptive strike damages the brand - and it most surely does - the union's actions serve to destroy, little-by-little, their livelihood.
Jon, Aberdeen (New Orleans)

I'm not in the least bothered whether British Airways carries a flag or a folded flypaper. I'm much more concerned about the destruction of the Post Office network - something that really impacts on ordinary people's lives.
Roger, Morpeth

BA is no longer a national airline: it became London Airways when it abandoned customers living in the rest of the UK.
Mark Jameson, Leeds

I have flown the world over. You would not believe the condition and inconvenience of most of the worlds airlines. It's always a relief to know when I have been booked on BA. The food, service and seating are always good. There are some standards that are just too expensive for non-flag carriers to maintain. This is where BA, showing the flag, maintains a standard that others try to emulate. Standards should not be sacrificed for the short-sighted and brief convenience of expense and share holder profit.
Keith, Galveston, Texas

Those of us who live away from London are bemused at the national media's fixation with what is, in reality, local news! BA has long since ceased to be a national airline, becoming instead a regional carrier for the South-East. I frequently travel on business, across Europe and worldwide, but hardly ever with BA. Flying BA typically means connecting in London, while there is usually another carrier flying direct from Manchester. And even when there are no direct flights, it is usually pleasanter and more reliable to connect in Paris, Amsterdam or Chicago than LHR.
Mark, Manchester

There are certain advantages to having a state carrier. Very senior govt and royalty can fly BA in safety and don't need an "Airforce One".
Peter, Nottingham

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